Sustainable Cities™

San Francisco: Yellow taxis turn green

The taxi cabs in San Francisco, USA, take the lead in the struggle for a better environment. Today, more than half of the city's taxis are hybrid vehicles or run on compressed natural gas. And the proportion of environment-friendly taxis is rapidly increasing. The initiative is not just good for the environment, but also for the drivers' purses.

Gul taxa i San Franciscos gader. Igancio Guerra, 4. february 2009, Flickr Creative Commons.

When the green taxi programme was started in 2010 the Mayor in power of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, praises the initiative, which has been a great success so far. A new milestone has been reached: more than 57% of the city's taxis are now hybrid vehicles or run on CNG (compressed natural gas). The city passed legislation in 2008, giving the taxi companies four years to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases by 20% in relation to 1990 levels. They have already reduced greenhouse gas emissions by more than 12%.

Many people expressed concern when the legislation was presented. Wouldn't maintenance costs be high, wouldn't passengers have to suffer limited leg space and would the batteries last for the vehicles' lifespan? But San Francisco has already more than 700 hybrid taxis on its streets and until now, none of the above problems have arisen. In 2005, 15 hybrid taxis, all of them Ford Escapes, began operating on trial in San Francisco. The cars have now driven around 300,000 km. They are fast approaching the pension age for taxis and will soon be taken off the road - but not because they cannot run any more. Their lifespan demonstrates that hybrid technology is much more tenable than previously assumed.

The new hybrid taxi in San Francisco, Ford Escape. Otzberg, July 30 2006, Flickr Creative Commons.

Hybrid cars are ideal for the environment. Not only do they go further on a litre of gasoline/petrol than ordinary gas vehicles, they also emit far less CO2. The cars do especially well at low speeds and when standing still, which makes them especially relevant as city taxis. The most common taxi in San Francisco, the Ford Crown Victoria, only does about 5-6 km on a litre (12-14 mpg) in the city, says Taxi and Limousine Organisation spokesman Allan Fromberg. "It certainly doesn't have a reputation for being fuel-efficient," he says. A hybrid taxi like the Ford Escape, which runs on a combination of gasoline/petrol and battery power, does about 14-15 km on a litre (34 mpg).

The green vehicles do not just benefit the environment but the taxi companies' bottom line as well. The experimental cars in San Francisco have saved their drivers/owners about USD 9000 a year in gasoline/petrol, depending to some extent on fuel prices and the number of shifts.
In addition to this, the cars' brakes require less maintenance and some of the hybrid models are cheaper to buy than the traditional Crown Victoria.

"For the taxi drivers it is just as much a question of the money in their pocket as the green and the environment," - Fromberg adds.

And the future looks bright for San Francisco's environment-friendly taxis. Car manufacturers Ford, Nissan and General Motors have all promised to make a larger number of hybrid cars specially designed for use as taxis. Together with New York's taxi drivers, who have introduced a similar programme, the companies have had to fight for those cars that are manufactured. The Mayor of San Francisco also has a new demonstration project on the drawing board which, in addition to hybrid cars, will also promote electric taxis. The warm reception that has been given to the environment-friendly taxis seems to indicate that they are an advantage to the taxi drivers, the people of San Francisco as well as the environment.

Effects of the clean taxi policy

This initiative has been widely supported by taxi drivers, taxi companies, and the public. The city has managed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from its taxi fleet from over 100,000 (short) tons per year to about 40,000 (short) tons per year, while still increasing the number of taxis on the road. By 2015, the city will offset the remaining GHG emissions through renewable energy or energy efficiency investments, and aims to have achieved zero taxi emissions by 2020. According to Paul Gillespie, the author of the legislation, "this policy takes action appropriate in scope and time frame to the urgency of the problem."

Last updated Tuesday, January 21, 2014